Short video reflections addressing the questions of what is disappearance?
How is it manifest in the world? And what challenges does it pose for this living within the shadow of its effects?
The terms 'disappeared' and 'disappearance' emerged during the Argentine dictatorship in the 1970s, when the Argentine state kidnapped and killed those that it perceived to be a threat to its operations and ideological foundations. However, disappearance has been perpetrated systematically and for diverse rationale across the globe for centuries. As such, enforced disappearance has been a historical constituent element of violence linked to wider political, economic and cultural processes, including slavery, colonialism, the egregious political violence perpetrated in diverse settings during the Cold War, the kidnapping of women and girls for sexual slavery and the silencing of opposition to ecological and environmental activism.
Today, enforced disappearance is considered a serious human rights violation and a permanent form of torture. The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance entered into force in 2010, with the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances celebrated on 30 August. The juridical framework for disappearance then has become increasingly consolidated over time. Nevertheless, relatively little is known about how the relatives, communities and societies of those that are disappeared live disappearance, including in terms of its embodied, psychological and everyday impact. Testimony can be one approach to helping us understand what living with disappearance might mean, including in terms of physical and mental health and how individuals and societies cope with its ongoing consequences.
For example, Jimena's son was the victim of forced disappearance in the early 2000s in Colombia, most likely perpetrated by the country's far-right paramilitary forces within the context of the country's broader internal armed conflict. Jimena has lived for over two decades with the uncertainty of what happened to her son, with his living absence, his physical invisibility. Every morning Jimena prepares the breakfast table for herself and her son, placing upon it her son's favourite breakfast, before eating her breakfast alone. She then spends the day engaging with the state institutions mandated to search for her missing son - and for the hundreds of thousands of other disappeared Colombians. Her lunch and dinner follow the same patterns as her first meal of the day. She cooks for herself and her son, and anxiously waits for him to come back as she eats, hoping this will be the last day of his disappearance, a plate left on the table, replete with her son's favourite food. At night, before bed, she lights a candle, and leaves a cup of hot chocolate on the mantlepiece, in the hope that this will be her last day of not knowing where her son is, or whether he is dead or alive. Do Jimena's actions evidence psychological and physical coping mechanisms, symbolic gestures aimed at bringing her son home, forms of making meaning in a world now devoid of understanding and rules? What have been the consequences of her son’s disappearance on Jimena’s physical and mental wellbeing and health? Can we write of her experiences as violence? What do they reveal about violence as such? And what does this living with disappearance tell us about the world we inhabit, and most importantly, what responses do they demand from us?
Building on from previous initiatives that explored the conceptual and aesthetic challenges disappearance presents for our societies, along with funded research into what embodied conceptions of reconciliation means for lasting claims of justice, this next phase of our project aims to develop a network of core collaborators and the intellectual and operational framework that aims to understand living with disappearance from a trans-disciplinary perspective. Bringing together academics from the arts, humanities, medical sciences and social sciences from universities across the world, with renowned artists, cultural producers and policy and advocacy groups, so the aftermath of episodes of political violence and disappearance will be addressed and novel forms of response recommended and produced. In doing so, it will add further insight into the problem of extreme violence, which in turn adds further to the need to rethink what disappearance means in the 21st Century.
Responding to this, the ‘Living with Disappearance” network was founded at an inaugural workshop held at the University of Bristol 24/25th July 2023. Conceived by Associate Professor Roddy Brett (University of Bristol) & Professor Brad Evans (University of Bath), its mission includes the following stated aims:
To establish “disappearance studies” as a core sub field in conflict, violence and peace related programs.
To reconceptualise disappearance by drawing upon latest thinking in many applied fields.
To conduct ground breaking trans-disciplinary research that address the specificities and commonalities to disappearances across space and time
To bring together academics, policy practitioners, artists and cultural producers for the co-production of impactful interventions
To propose ethical frameworks for the researching and teaching of disappearance as a pedagogical and public concern
To host international conferences, public talks, workshops and summer schools to further the awareness and engagement with disappearance
To develop a dedicated series of outputs, including the first Journal for Disappearance Studies, along with a book series and policy briefings.
Click here to access our resources archive.
Writings on Disappearance